By What Measures Is a Picture Considered "Good"? Open Thread
In today's New York Times, there's an article about a contested "Warhol" painting, titled "315 Johns":
John (yes, that's why it's called "315 Johns") Chamberlain claims it's authentic, but he has $3 million at stake over that assertion, having sold it for that much in 2000. Gerard Malanga, a former Warhol assistant (who the Times says "helped create many of the most famous silk-screen paintings"), claims he and a friend made the piece with no input whatsoever from Andy. Now it's questionable to my mind that if an assistant who was involved in creating "many of the most famous" works then makes a piece in such a way that it can be mistaken for the work of his or her employer, whether he can then claim no input whatsoever (i.e., it's not clearly a work done in a style one would associate with Malanga...but that's perhaps another thread).
Although the question of whether the piece is worth less than $3 million if Andy didn't know it existed is tangentially related to my topic this morning, I bring this up mostly as an excuse to borrow the language in a quote by Andy that ends the article:
In the murky world of Warhol it’s anybody’s guess whether such information will ever lead to a clear answer. Warhol himself might not have cared much. As he once said — or is said to have said, "My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person."Which leads me to the first point in rethinking by what measures we determine whether artwork is "good." Not to contradict what Warhol supposedly claimed, but theoretically if a portrait is really "good" it can actually make its subject famous (think Dr. Gachet, Mona Lisa, Dora Maar, Christina Olson, etc.). So my first question is whether "fame" is a valid measure of whether a picture is a good one. I know the standard industry answer to that question. I use it all the time to deflect queries about why I don't like Thomas Kinkade, for example, but in trying to come up with a unifying theory about the measures that lead us to declare art "good," I don't think you can leave "fame" entirely out of it.
This ties in to my second question, which centers on the places all famous art tends to end up: museums. Currently the so-called system moves artwork along from the studio to galleries to collections to museums where it lives happily ever after (with the odd deaccession exceptions). But in reading the essay by Carlos Basualdo titled "The Unstable Institution" (from the collection of essays “What Makes a Great Exhibition?”), I had my thinking on what it means for art to be acquired by a museum somewhat clarified for me. Basualdo argues:
In Western countries, modern art was thought to be structured around the relative balance between a number of institutions founded on a common history or histories, that is to say, on shared values. In this order of things, the tension between production and the market finds a sort of referee in criticism and museums. We could say, very schematically, that the duty of criticism has been to inscribe production into a symbolic field in a way that simultaneously makes it accessible to the effects of the mechanisms of the production of exchange value, while the duty of art history has been to recover the specific differential in the work that hinders its complete subordination to exchange values. Of the two, it was the institution of the museum---which from its origins has had a fundamentally ideological character---that sanctioned the value of the work as exchange value, but not without first disguising it, hiding it in the folds of a particular historical narrative that the museum was supposedly responsible for preserving and intensifying. [emphasis mine]Indeed, even if one agrees that, for the most part, museum acquisition is a valid measure of quality, it's not possible to separate that out from the fact that museums fundamentally sanction the value of the work as exchange value, leading to my second point in rethinking by what measures we determine whether artwork is "good." Is "exchange value" is a valid measure of whether a picture is a good one?
I know that by now some folks are cracking their knuckles in preparation for typing a blistering retort, but stick with me a moment. The idea "collectively considered 'good'" (i.e., more or less meaning a majority of people agree, as applicable to, oh say, for example Michaelangelo's David) requires collectively recognized criteria. These by definition must be somewhat relative to time and place and therefore artificial. Still, most of us do at least momentarily rethink our opinion of a work of art that sells for millions of dollars (if we're honest about it), no? And don't opinions about quality evolve? Is there some value point at which, even if you loathe a work of art for aesthetic/philosophical/political reasons, that you'd still consider saving it from a burning museum if you were the only one who could do so? At which you recognize the cultural value it holds because it's so expensive?
I like to think, in my more romantic moments, that the only valid measure for whether art is "good" or not is how influential is it with other artists. But even there, I've seen the fact that someone's work is selling like hotcakes impact how much interest it holds for other artists, so the noncommercial purity of that measure is questionable as well.
Left out of this discussion so far, obviously, are questions of how well made an artwork is. That's an issue that gobbles up gigabytes of comments here, but even there we can break that question down. Having been on the receiving end of lectures from conservators (like I made the work??? geesh...), I know that how "well made" an artwork is can be seen in terms of archival issues as well as questions of how pleasing/compelling the lines, shapes, forms, composition, etc., are. Having said that, it should be noted that the latter is probably what most people mean when they step up to assert that a work of art is "good" in their opinion.
But that brings us full circle to the issue of concept. Should I send the "Mona Lisa" off to one of those painting factories in China, they will, as advertised, return a replica so convincing that many of the same people would conclude that this forgery is "good" in terms of how pleasing/compelling its lines, shapes, forms, composition, etc., are. Close inspection might reveal the comparative inferiority of the brushwork, but to the average viewer, using only those criteria, this would seemingly be a "good" painting. So my next question becomes whether "originality" is a valid measure of whether a picture is a good one.
So far the measures I'm most comfortable with here include influence on other artists, aesthetically compelling/pleasing, and original. But I can see problems within each of those as well and I think it's foolish to pretend the others (e.g, fame, exchange value) are irrelevant.
Consider this an open thread on how [UPDATED FOR CLARITY] we, collectively, conclude an artwork is "good."